Top Ten Native Plants for a Diverse and Beautiful Yard

This article originally appeared in the Wylde Center Fall 2015 Newsletter.

A short list cannot begin to describe the immense diversity and variation in the plant species and communities that evolved in what is now Georgia, USA. This list is just an attempt to get you to think about the plants that are in your yard and garden, where they came from, and what purpose(s) they serve. Landscaping can be beautiful AND provide food and shelter for wildlife.

In selecting these plants my criteria included: Native to Georgia, Number of caterpillar species hosted, Production of fruits/nuts for birds (and humans), Abundant flowers for pollinators (and humans), and cover/shelter for birds. The number of caterpillar species hosted is doubly important: Some lucky caterpillars get to grow up to be butterflies and moths that help pollinate flowers, but the vast majority of them are destined to be eaten by birds and other animals. Baby birds need large amounts of fat and protein to develop their brains and bodies just like baby humans, but unlike humans, birds cannot deliver these nutrients via milk. It takes lots and lots of caterpillars to raise a healthy bird to maturity. Each selection starts with a whole Genus of plants, and then narrows to one or two species that are endemic to the Piedmont. There are two reasons for this structure: The numbers for caterpillar species hosted* are expressed by genus, and if conditions in your yard will not support my selections then you can research the other members of the genus. The wide diversity of plants in the Southeast almost guarantees that there are other species in the genus that will find your yard delightful. Mindful selection of native plants for your yard helps to reunite a fragmented landscape into a larger community, and gives us all a sense of place in the land that we call home.

*All numbers cited for caterpillar species hosted come from Dr. Douglas Tallamy’s invaluable research that can be found on his website at http://www.bringingnaturehome.net/

Wild Cherry – Prunus spp. Prunus_angustifolium_01
Wild Cherry, Chokecherry, Wild Plum, Black Cherry and Laurel Cherry are some of the common names given to the native members of this genus. It also includes the cultivars that give us our plums, cherries, almonds, apricots, and peaches. The native Prunus species host a whopping 429 different species of caterpillars! In addition to the caterpillar smorgasbord, the fruits are also an important food source for birds. Chickasaw Plum (Prunus angustifolia) is a small tree (15 to 25 feet at maturity) that has glossy dark green leaves and reddish-brown bark. Clusters of small white flowers bloom in early spring, which provides much-needed nectar for emerging native bees. The small ½” reddish-orange fruits ripen in the late summer. The fruits are usually a bit tart to our modern tastes, but have a long history as a food source for Native Americans, and were later used to make jams, jellies, and wine by colonists. If you have the space Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is a full size tree (up to 100 feet) with the same early blooming white flowers. The fruits are small, but abundant, and also have a long history of use in jams and pies, and as a flavoring in many foods and beverages.

Blueberry – Vaccinium spp.

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Blueberries should be very familiar to anyone that has spent even a single summer in Georgia. The Vaccinium genus also contains the species commonly known as: Bilberry, Huckleberry, Cranberry, Whortleberry, and Lignonberry. Its members host 286 species of caterpillar in addition to making those delicious berries. The creamy white bell-shaped flowers bloom early in the season providing nectar for bees, and have their own native specialist pollinator, the Southeastern Blueberry Bee, that utilizes “buzz pollination” to efficiently transfer pollen and increase berry production. The Southern ‘Rabbiteye’ Blueberry (Vaccinium virgatum or V. ashei) has numerous named cultivars selected to produce tasty berries if you can beat the birds. It does better in the Southeastern climate than the Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), which is a more northerly native, and also has numerous named cultivars. Cultivars are all essentially clones, so make sure to plant at least two different ones for good cross pollination and berry set. If you want a true native try the amusingly named Farkleberry (Vaccinium arborescens), for a large shrub with evergreen leaves and smaller, tart berries that birds will still readily eat.

Joe Pye Weed – Eutrochium/Eupatorium spp.**
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Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) is already a popular garden plant, especially with butterfly enthusiasts. It grows up to ten feet tall in ideal conditions (part shade, moist soils) and produces large rounded clusters of hundreds of tiny pink flowers. Every shape and size of pollinator will be on this plant at the height of its bloom in late summer. Another member of this genus that also attracts numerous and diverse pollinators is Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). It has a long history of medicinal use by Native Americans and later by colonists. Boneset is easily recognized by its large, fuzzy perfoliate leaves. The opposite pairs are joined at the bases, and the stem appears to perforate them. Rounded clusters of white to pinkish blooms top the stalks in late summer. Eupatorium hosts 40 species of caterpillars, provide abundant nectar for adult butterflies, and follow through with lots of seeds for songbirds.

**Thanks to DNA sequencing all of the plants that used to be in the Eupatorium genus are constantly being shuffled around a few genera, so I am treating these two interchangeably.

Sedges – Carex spp.
Carex
Sedges are very similar to grasses, and are in fact close cousins of the grass family. They tend to be shorter at maturity, have broader leaves, and prefer partly shady moist areas, whereas grasses tend to prefer drier, sunnier habitats. Sedges are very well suited for border plantings at the edges of walkways, flower beds, and around the bases of trees. Anywhere that one might consider planting the dreaded invasive Monkeygrass (Liriope spp.) is a spot that would be much better off with a group of sedges. Broadleaf Sedge (Carex platyphylla) has attractive silvery green leaves that form dense clumps 8-10” tall and put up spiky flower heads that develop into seeds for songbirds. Blue Wood Sedge (Carex flaccosperma) has blue-green leaves, is semi-evergreen, and blooms in early spring. Carex hosts 36 caterpillar species in stark contrast to Liriope’s zero.

(NATIVE) Honeysuckle – Lonicera spp.

Lonicera sempervirens
The sweet smelling and tasting Honeysuckle with the creamy white flowers that is most often associated with that word is actually highly invasive and originally native to Asia. Lonicera japonica was spread all over the world in the 19th century and is now on every continent except Antarctica. Please do not propagate this plant, despite the fact that many nurseries continue to sell it. Scarlet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is native to this country, and is a tree-safe vine that produces clusters of brilliant red tubular flowers in mid-spring. These flowers are an important nectar source for our resident and migratory hummingbirds. The foliage is semi-evergreen, and the plant roots easily at the nodes making it easy to grow and multiply. It can be trained onto a trellis or fence into a very attractive, cascading mass of dark green leaves and bright red blooms. Yellow Honeysuckle (Lonicera flava) is another US Native that is essentially the same as Scarlet Honeysuckle in all respects except flower color. Its yellow tubular flowers are also attractive to hummingbirds. The native Lonicera plants host 33 species of caterpillars.

Goldenrod – Solidago spp.

Solidago
Goldenrod often gets a bad reputation by association. It blooms the same time as Ragweed, and frequently gets blamed by allergy sufferers as the cause of their congestion. Goldenrods are pollinated by insects, and as such do not release clouds of pollen into the air like Ragweed. The beautiful yellow flowers are a favorite of many pollinators when they bloom in late summer as most other flowers have faded. In addition to beautiful, nectar bearing flowers goldenrods host 112 species of caterpillars. Showy Goldenrod (Solidago erecta) is a low-growing set of leaves for most of the year until it sprouts a 3-4 foot tall stem in late summer that is covered in hundreds of tiny yellow flowers. The small seeds that follow the blooms are readily consumed by birds. Wrinkleleaf Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) is a slowly spreading, rhizomatous, colony-forming plant that has deep green leaves with toothed margins. The low-growing rosettes of leaves put up stalks lined with small yellow flowers in late summer that are followed by abundant seeds.

Hawthorn – Crataegus spp.

Crataegus
Hawthorns are large, thicket forming, woody shrubs in the Rose family. As with roses, they have beautiful flowers and large thorns. A thorny hedge is a great way to deter a nosy neighbor, and it makes ideal cover for nesting birds. Hawthorns flower in early spring, which makes them another important nectar and pollen source for native bees, they produce edible fruits, and host an impressive 150 different species of caterpillars. Yellow Hawthorn (Crataegus flava) is a drought tolerant small tree/ large shrub with clusters of bright white flowers in early Spring, yellow fruits in Summer, and beautiful foliage in Autumn. Parsley Leaf Hawthorn (Crataegus marshalii) is a multi-stemmed upright shrub with small, deeply incised leaves that resemble parsley leaves. Small white flowers are followed by bright red fruits that persist on the plant to become winter bird forage. It does well in average to dry soils and part shade.

Arrowwood – Viburnum spp.
Viburnum
Viburnums are very popular with landscapers and developers. Low water needs, tolerant of many soils, attractive glossy foliage, beautiful flowers, autumn colors: They knock it out of the park. Unfortunately, many of the varieties that are in the nursery trade are either from Asia, or have been hybridized with Asian species. This has made for some very interesting looking cultivars, but there is scant research on whether or not the 97 species of caterpillars that feed on native Viburnum leaves can fully utilize these non-native plants. Best to err on the side of caution on behalf of the caterpillars and plant a native that will also produce viable seeds for the birds to spread around. Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerfolium) is a great shrub to grow in the filtered shade of a large tree. It spouts multiple 3-5 foot tall stems lined with large opposite pairs of deep green leaves that are easily mistaken for Maple leaves. Rounded clusters of small white flowers bloom through the spring, and are followed by pea-sized blue-black fruits that birds will devour just as quickly as blueberries. The leaves put on a spectacular color show in autumn shifting through yellow, orange, red and then purplish hues before they drop for the winter. A larger specimen is Rusty Blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum) which is a thicket forming large shrub/small tree that grows 10-20 feet tall. The young leaves are covered in fine red hairs that give them a “rusty” appearance, and they also turn brilliant colors in the fall. It does best in average to dry soils and full sun to part shade.

Asters – Symphyotrichium spp.

Symphyotrichum
Asters are one of the largest plant families encompassing over 1600 genera of closely related plants with very similar looking flowers including Sunflowers, Daisies, Coneflower, Black Eyed Susan, and many, many more. The members of the Symphyotrichium genus tend to be named “(Person/Place/Adjective) Aster.” Georgia Aster (Symphyotrichium georgianum) should be our state flower. It is a drought tolerant rosette of low-growing leaves for most of the year, but starting in September a 3-4 foot tall branching stalk of blooms emerges. The abundant 2” flowers have deep purple petals with purplish-white centers that often continue to bloom through October into November making it a great source of late season nectar and pollen. Another late bloomer that is also inconspicuous until it flowers is Calico Aster (Symphyotrichium lateriflorum). Its 2-4 foot tall bloom stalk is covered with hundreds of small white flowers with yellow centers that fade to brown as they age. The blooms continue to emerge through November or until they are killed back by frost.
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The Life and Times of the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)

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One of the most rewarding aspects of planting a pollinator/wildlife garden is watching the life cycle of caterpillars and the resulting butterflies play out in your backyard. I was lucky enough to bear witness to such a process involving the Spicebush Swallowtail over the past  6-8 months, and, fortunately for you, I had my camera handy for most of it!

A quick refresher lesson in butterfly life cycles:  Adult butterflies feed on the nectar of a variety of plants to gain the energy to search for a mate. Once they mate the females lay eggs on a suitable host plant.  This relationship is one of the most fascinating parts of the process. Some butterflies will lay eggs on a variety of plants, usually limited to a specific plant family, such as Rosaceae (Rose Family).  This means that the caterpillars that hatch from the eggs could feed on the leaf of a rose, an apple tree, a hawthorn, a plum tree, or a strawberry plant and be perfectly happy and healthy.  Other butterflies will only lay eggs on specific plants such as the famous Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), which lays eggs on, and whose caterpillars eat only Milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.).  

The female, after mating with a male, will seek out an appropriate host plant on which to lay her eggs.  She uses her compound eyes to locate plants and then lands on a leaf and drums on it with her forelegs.  Specialized chemical receptors in the forelegs can sense/taste/smell the leaf and its chemical exhalations and confirm or deny the host-worthiness of the plant.  Spicebush Swallowtails lay eggs exclusively on plants in the Lauraceae family (Magnolia Order), which includes Spicebush (Lindera bezoin); Sassafras (Sassafras albidum); Sweet Bay (Magnolia virginiana); and Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera). 

Once the eggs hatch the caterpillars emerge and begin to eat, and eat, and eat the leaves of the host plant until they are large enough to shed a skin.  They do this four or five times, and each new skin is called an ‘instar.’  Once they have grown sufficiently and stored enough leaf energy to pupate they shed one last skin and what emerges is a chrysalis in which the transformation to a butterfly is completed. Before the last skin shed the caterpillar anchors itself to a leaf, twig, brick, pot, or other stable surface with silk wires, and the hardened chrysalis hangs by these delicate wires for the duration of the transformation.  The adult butterfly emerges to feed on the nectar of flowers and find a mate and the whole process starts over. 

So, let’s rewind back to September of last year.  I’m in the nursery and I see some leaf damage to the Spicebushes (Lindera bezoin) and start hunting for the culprit. 

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This is one of the earlier stages of the caterpillar, in which it is camouflaged to look like bird droppings. The Spicebush Swallowtail’s entire life cycle is marked by camouflage and visual deception.

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This little guy spends the days in a rolled up leaf to hide from birds and other predators and comes out at night to feed on the leaves of the plant.  The leaf rolling mechanism is one of those amazing feats of natural engineering that’s also so simple that it leaves you speechless.

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 The caterpillar attaches threads of silk to the leaf on either side of the leaf mid-vein and as the silk dries it pulls the leaf around the caterpillar.  When I let go of the leaf edges it instantly wrapped back up.

 That was the initial contact. in the coming weeks I noticed several more caterpillars, and then I saw one that had made it to the next stage, or instar, in which it’s meant to resemble a snake.

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 The body swells at the end and the “eyes” (which are just skin coloration, the actual eyes are further down the head) become more prominent.

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It does look like a snake’s head at least.  Still hiding in that leaf.

I didn’t get a picture of the next phase, in which the caterpillar gets even bigger and turns a yellowish-orange color before anchoring itself to something and shedding its final skin to emerge as a chrysalis.  I did find several of those a few weeks later.

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Here is one right on the Spicebush.  I also found them on neighboring plants, and some were even in between the pots that hold the plants.  Look at the industrious use of the two silk lines and the anchored base to hold it upright and steady.

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It was pretty cool to see just how many little future butterflies our population of Spicebushes were supporting.  We had about 60 one year old plants in the nursery, which would probably have the equivalent number of leaves as two or three fully grown plants. I  didn’t get to see any of these hatch, but I did find a few empty ones later.

So, the winter came, and the plants lost their remaining leaves, and the food source was gone. About a month ago the Spicebush broke dormancy and began putting out new leaves.  One month is about the time required for a caterpillar to go from egg to butterfly. Just the other day I was in the greenhouse when I spotted a young, probably newly hatched, butterfly on some phlox.

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It stayed there until I startled it about 2 hours later, and it moved toward the wall where I was able to get a great shot of it flexing.

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  I still thought it was a Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) but that’s partially because that’s what it wants you to think.  Especially if you are a bird.  Pipevine swallowtails feed on Aristilochia species and, much like the Monarchs and milkweed, that makes them taste bad/toxic as caterpillars and even as adults.  Birds learn not to eat the foul tasting butterflies that are also black with white, orange and blue markings, and these guys get a free pass by association.

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This picture is why I was able to definitively ID it as a Spicebush Swallowtail. It’s still lacking the white spots on the very outer tips of its wings, which I thought suggested it was still very young.  That and the larger than normal abdomen along with the time of year.  

Here’s a few of the links I used to learn all this stuff:

 


Milkweeds Sacrifice; Monarchs Take Flight

As we were walking the propagation beds a few weeks back, Pandra and I approached a patch of about 8-10 milkweed plants (Asclepias tuberosa) and she said “Oh no!”  Only one was still green, and all that remained of the others were brown dried out stems with a few dead leaves still clinging to the ends.  It looked a little like this:

We started to discuss what could have caused all these plants to die off and whether or not it was the same beetles that took out nearly all of our Coreopsis last spring.  I said that I’d seen a Monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on one of those plants the week before, and maybe they were the cause?  We took a look at another patch of milkweed plants and saw essentially the same thing, dead crowns on all the plants except one.  The one remaining green plant in this patch had three monarch caterpillars feasting on the leaves.  I didn’t get a picture, but they had obviously come from the plants with the dead crowns, as this last green plant was the farthest down the line.  We both said “well, that’s why we grow milkweed” and hoped that the crowns would re-sprout in the spring.

Fast forward two weeks and I’m out at the front beds again checking to see if seeds had ripened on some of the sunflowers.  A Monarch butterfly floated by on the breeze.  Then another one caught my eye flying down to the other end of the bed.  Fortunately I had my camera.

This is a newly hatched Monarch feeding on the nectar of a Georgia Aster flower.  This is also a good example of why you need butterfly host plants AND flowering nectar plants to support a healthy population of butterflies in your garden.  If this butterfly had hatched and there was no food in the area she might have perished, but there were multiple species of plants flowering within 30 yards of the milkweed so she had plenty to eat.  Hopefully it provided a good first meal for the incredible journey to Mexico or South Florida that this lady is about to embark upon. 

    That’s fine and well for the butterflies, but what about our poor milkweed plants?  I went to check on their roots and to my surprise I found this:

Already sprouting new growth!  All of the plants with dead crowns were putting up some form of new growth, and most of it looked larger and greener than the growth that the monarchs devoured.  The milkweeds abandoned their crowns as a result of the siege, and then after the caterpillars left and pupated they simply sprouted new stems.  Host plant/insect relationships are so complex and fascinating.  Almost as fascinating as how successive generations of butterflies know how and when to migrate thousands of miles to a place they’ve never been, but that’s another post.  Until then……

Happy Trails!